So much has changed for Udonis Haslem, so much that he’s had to accept.
He has never played fewer minutes in his NBA career, not even as an undrafted rookie a decade ago, rarely getting any time after his stints to start the first and third quarters.
He has never received less respect from the officials, called for fouls while defending in a manner similar to teammates, and getting repeatedly hacked without reward on the other end.
He started during all but one of the Heat’s 27 straight wins, then was forced to field countless questions about whether he expected to be removed for the postseason.
And so, Sunday night should be remembered as his night.
It should be remembered as Haslem’s night even while there was so much that merited recognition on the Heat’s side in this 114-96 victory at Indiana, from the most determined, dynamic, devastating offensive half-court half of the season, to the remarkable scarcity of turnovers, to Chris Andersen’s continuing cartoonish efficiency, to LeBron James’ clinic from the left block.
It should be remembered as Haslem’s night because, as the Heat worked from the inside out from the start on their way to securing a 2-1 series lead, it was the veteran forward – of all the Heat’s accomplished stable of shooters – who most made the Pacers pay for providing space.
It was Haslem who kept putting Roy Hibbert on the spot, simply by spotting up. Haslem kept settling into his sweet spot, on the left baseline roughly 17 feet from the basket, the same spot from which he connected regularly in Game 4 of the second-round series here last spring.
“I tried to get down the floor early, get to my spacing, and make the big guy make a decision,” Haslem said.
In Hibbert’s view, Haslem’s role was decisive.
“He was the X-factor for them tonight,” Hibbert said. “He wasn’t making those shots the prior two games.”
Haslem scored a total of three points in those.
“So I was rotating off him and helping out Paul (George) or rotating to (Chris) Bosh and stuff like that,” Hibbert said.
Sunday, left alone, dismissed if not disrespected, Haslem scored 17, making eight of nine shots from the field.
He made three jump shots in the first quarter, and three other shots, from closer to the rim, in the first half.
“My guys kept finding me,” Haslem said. “Credit my guys, they found me, and I just shot it with confidence.”
Then, when the Heat found themselves in a third-quarter rut, similar to those in the two losses at Bankers Fieldhouse during the regular season, his old friend Dwyane Wade found him again.
His 19-footer stretched the lead back to nine.
His 18-footer, a few minutes later, stretched it to 12.
So then he could stretch his legs, not playing in the final 14 minutes, a towel over his neck and sometimes his mouth, hands on his knees, only rising to cheer and slap hands.
This is so often where he spends the fourth quarter, a forgotten man as the team he co-captains tries to hang on without him. In the first two games of the series he got some late time, but simply to spend one possession defending David West, something he did effectively in overtime of Game 1.
Of course, few noticed in the joyous aftermath of James’ buzzer-beater. Just as few noticed Haslem’s steady shooting uptick in the second half of this season, as he addressed balance issues that were created by his foot surgery 2 1/2 years ago, and as he became a bit more comfortable with his place in the offense.
“I always want to contribute however I can,” Haslem said. “Tonight it was just making shots.”
It wasn’t just that, of course.
It was his speech to the team just prior to leaving the locker room.
“He doesn’t talk too much,” Wade said. “When U.D. talks, he’s not just talking to hear his voice.”
Then he made himself heard on the court, with his physical defense, and with a steady jumper.
“The one thing U.D. had seen from Game 1 is that he had a lot of opportunities,” Wade said. “And more so than anybody, he was peeved that he wasn’t knocking down those shots. We knew he was going to have one of those games. We didn’t know when it was going to come. When he started off tonight, he was locked in from the beginning.”
His shooting creating openings for others, and distance on the scoreboard.
“Look, we know Udonis Haslem now for 10 years,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s been in more playoff battles arguably than anybody else in this locker room. And he’s played his biggest in the biggest moments, when you need him, when there’s adversity.”
The adversity has been there for him all season, and it will not subside, not as he ages after a decade of those battles and bruises. There will be continuing questions, about how well he fits, how much he can contribute. But Sunday should be savored. Sunday was his night.